Notwithstanding all that has been written about the fifth book of the Greek Scriptures, "Acts of Apostles," there still remains great confusion over what it is all about. Yet there is less excuse for doubt about Acts than any other of these books, for its purpose is clear from the Introduction of five verses.
The first account, that is, Luke's Gospel, is "concerning all which Jesus begins both to do and to teach," and it is until the day of His Ascension. Then the Introduction to Acts proceeds at once to His acts up to that day and His instructions to the Apostles. His instructions are twofold: matters concerning the Kingdom of God, and the promised baptism in holy spirit.
Therefore, in studying this book we ought to be as if running on rails. It should be impossible to go astray. What follows in the account is plainly about what the Lord Jesus continued both to do and to teach by the Holy Spirit through His apostles, and principally in connection with the Kingdom of God and the baptism in holy spirit. And, lest there should be still any doubt, the closing verses (28:28-31) are about the saving-work of God (which the baptism in holy spirit made possible) and heralding the Kingdom of God. And, finally, this is teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. The whole conclusion might be likened to closing the last flap of the wrapping of a parcel and sealing it to the first. Nothing could be plainer.
Possibly one cause of the confusion about Acts is the circumstance that after Acts 1:9 the Lord Jesus ceased directly to do or to teach anything. The operative word in this sentence is "directly" because, in actual fact, His prophecy that Another would be available to console and to begin to guide His people began to be fulfilled almost at once, perhaps quite at once in the immediate writing of the Gospels. This Consoler (paraklEtos, literally "One Who can console") is defined as the Spirit of the truth (John 14:16, 17), Who is to be with His disciples "for the eon." He adds that "He is remaining with you and will be in you." Presently He says (14:26, literally): "Now the Consoler—the Spirit the Holy which the Father will be sending in the name of Me—that One to you will be teaching all and will be bringing to your minds all that I said to you." The Consoler's business will be testifying concerning the Lord Jesus (John 15:26). Lastly, the other side of His work will be exposing the world concerning sin and concerning righteousness and concerning judgment (16:7-11).
Pentecost was the direct fulfilment of the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of the fulfilment of the promises of the Lord Jesus concerning His work as the Paraklete in the Lord's absence. And we see the development of that fulfilment right through Acts, throughout the Epistles, and even some way into the Revelation or Apocalypse, as well as the theme of the closing message of the Lord Jesus before His Ascension.
How greatly those who were then coming together to hear Him (Acts 1:6) needed this promised coming of the Holy Spirit is indicated with startling plainness by their last question to Him: "Lord, at this time art Thou restoring the Kingdom to Israel?" They realized that the time then present was a moment of tremendous crisis, yet they were still totally unaware of the nature of the crisis. As their outlook was still soulish, their attention was still fixed on soulish things, their relation to material earthly affairs, so they could not even glimpse anything beyond such matters.
The Lord Jesus would not reply directly to such a blind question. He simply clamped down on any further discussion of the subject. "It is not yours to know times or eras which the Father placed in jurisdiction of His own"; and then He turned again to the promised coming of the Holy Spirit and what their mission was to be.
The word restore occurs eight times in the Greek Scriptures: Matt. 12:13; 17:11; Mark 3:5; 8:25; 9:12; Luke 6:10; Acts 1:6; Heb. 13:19. It means the returning of something to what it had been before. But the Kingdom of which the Lord Jesus spoke was something that had yet to be—a Kingdom that is essentially spiritual. A thing that is only coming into existence cannot be "restored"! The fact that in God's purpose it is ultimately to be a material kingdom as well, and in that sense a restoration of the former material kingdom, is a totally different issue. The Kingdom as it is referred to in the Sermon on the Mount, as it was unlocked at Pentecost, as it appears throughout the rest of Acts and in Paul's Epistles, is most certainly not a material kingdom set up in power and exercising Divine rule; it has nothing in common with what the questioners had in mind in Acts 1:6, nor is there anywhere in Acts any word of setting up such a kingdom.
These facts did not deter J. J. B. Coles from describing Acts as "the solemn record of the rejection of the Spirit and of the offer made with accompanying miraculous signs of the Return, or Parousia, to introduce the Kingdom of the risen Christ. .." (Things to Come, Vol. 13, 1907, p. 16). This assertion is wholly erroneous, though altogether unambiguous. The careless inaccuracy of "the Return, or Parousia" is atrocious; but at least there is nothing furtive about it, as when others assume Coles' idea to be true but lack the courage to say so plainly. At least he said what he thought, though what he thought was absurd.
For that cowardice is precisely what those are committing who speak as if the references to the Kingdom in Acts and the Epistles are "Millennial." Generally they avoid being even as frank as that, and speak of the Gentiles throughout Acts as being "treated as subjects of the kingdom and subordinate to the Jewish nation." The horrifying thing about such as assertion as this is that some of the Jews did so treat Gentiles. Yet that is no justification for implying that any of the Apostles did so or that such behaviour was in accordance with the will of God.
References to "the millennial earth" and "the earthly Kingdom" do appear occasionally from some writers; but those who think in that way are careful not to commit themselves too definitely. If the Millennium (more strictly, the thousand years) was in view during the period covered by Acts, why is nothing whatever said about it?
The extraordinary thing about all this is that so few Christians seem to have the spiritual vision to perceive that not even a breath of a reference to the thousand years is to be found in any reference to the Kingdom in the Gospels, Acts or Paul's Epistles. It is right outside their scope. Now that we have a version that described itself as "Concordant" and to a large extent fulfils its claim, all this inaccuracy in handling Scripture has become inexcusable. Those who practise it should be shunned.
Another odd lapse is the way people so constantly hint, and even assert, that "the church" is a subject right outside Acts. As far back as Vol. 25, No. 1, p. 42, in "Acts as History," I wrote of the misconception "that Acts records the birth of the Church and its subsequent bursting of the bonds of Judaism and its spreading out into the world." I added:
Apart from human perversity, the basis of the general confusion is (as with parousia, presence) the far too common practise of using ordinary Common Nouns as if they were Proper Nouns. People insist on writing of "the Parousia," just that, in direct defiance of the fact that Scripture never does, but always "the parousia (presence) OF" someone or something. So here. Perhaps if we could drop talking of "the Church" and substitute "the out-called-company" or "assembly," we might recover from this widespread obsession. The nature of any out-called-company depends solely on whom it is called out from and what it is called out to. That there is only one out-called-company for all times and in all places is plainly fallacious; but this does not entitle us to assume that there was more than one out-called-company of God in existence on earth at the time when Paul arrived in Rome, or any other, for that matter.
In a very strange paper, recently published elsewhere, we are informed that "Paul himself was probably in three different 'classes' during his career." These are not at all clearly defined by the author. The earliest was apparently a Jewish 'class,' then he came to be "in the one body, in its transitional aspect." Then: "Later, he lost his standing in the flesh entirely, and became a member of the joint body."
What point of contact these notions have with God's Word, or with reality at all, is not stated and is an unfathomable mystery. Apparently the first is supposed to be in the period before Acts 17; but the second is beyond my understanding. There is no trace whatever of any "transitional aspect" of the "one body," a phrase which is referred to in Rom. 12:4, 5; 1. Cor. 10:17; 12:12, 13, 20; Eph. 2:16; 4:4; Col. 3:15. As for "becoming a member of the joint body," Scripture is completely silent. The word sunsOma occurs once only, in Eph. 3:6: "In spirit, the Gentiles are to be joint-heir-people and joint-body-people and joint-partaker people of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Evangel of which I (Paul) became dispenser. . ." That was the Secret make known to Paul by revelation. In the Greek the order of the words is "in spirit to be the Gentiles." That state of the Gentiles came from simple choice into actual recognizable being the moment that revelation was made known to Paul: it was not a prophecy of some future event, it was a revelation of what the "one body" in fact was and remains. The word sunsOma or sussOma in Eph. 3:6 is, like its two neighbours, accusative plural neuter (see Vol. 23, p. 216). Consequently we are spared the problem of asking just when people who belonged to the "one body" became the "joint-body-people." They always were!
Ephesians, the epistle which tells us this, also tells us that God chooses us in Christ "before world-katabolE." That was when His choice was made, not some undisclosed point of time during the period covered by Acts, or just after. Paul always was chosen to belong to the joint-body-people. His membership was never the result of change of mind by God. There is no trace whatever in Scripture of Paul's "class" changing even once, let alone twice, as (presumably) some change of administration, "dispensation" or economy which, anyhow, exists only in the minds of those who suffer from a strange obsession with inventing theories and then forcing Scripture into compliance with them.
Typical of the widespread loose thinking is a question which begins: "If Acts does not deal with the body of Christ. . ." just what does "deal with" mean? Certainly the term is absent from Acts; but, equally certainly, members of the body appear in Acts; and two of them, Barnabas and Paul, are listed therein as apostles.
In actual sober fact, the "deal with" referred to (but not so described in Acts) is the hearing and believing of the word of the Evangel through the mouth of Peter (Acts 15:7), and the giving of the Holy Spirit. These are recognized as "signs and wonders among the Gentiles" (v. 12), which they were! Acts 14:3 and 8:13, just before, illustrate this. It is all too easy to discover the underlying purpose of the understatement "deal with"—it is to back up the unsupported assertion following: "James is speaking of the place accorded to the nations in the prophets." No! What the Gentiles were receiving was in harmony with the prophecy James quotes (Acts 15:15), or, rather, that the prophets' words were in harmony with it: "With this are agreeing the words of the prophets." As they will be in the future time, the Gentiles are seeking the Lord.
That is what Acts is about: what the Lord Jesus did, and taught them through the Holy Spirit, and people seeking the word in accordance with it.
The Holy Spirit starts the process; and the Apostle Peter explains what He is doing: announcing the resurrection and exaltation to God's right hand of the Lord Jesus Christ, and pointing out the way of repentance arid faith. And that is the governing theme right through. That is the theme of Peter's visit to Cornelius (Acts 10) and of Paul's speech in the synagogue of Antioch, Pisidia (Acts 13) and Peter's in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Paul's gentile ministry starts from the same point (Acts 17), and this is the theme he works up to in his speech in Athens. So right through to the end (Acts 28:23 and 31).
Here we reach the crux of the matter, the real reason why Paul in Acts 28:26, 27 quotes the prophecy of Isa. 6:9, 10 already quoted by the Lord Jesus in Matt. 13:14, 15. It is to underline the fact that with the former quoting, Israel had already shown themselves to be "lo-ammi," "not My people," and that they had collectively continued to be in that state.
Then he discloses the truth which they had not perceived: that Isaiah's prophecy entailed the despatch of the saving-work of God to the Gentiles and the further fact that they would hear it on their own account; that is, without any mediation by Israel.
During that period the out-called-company IS "the church of God," not merely a part of it, includes ALL the churches in existence, not a part of them. Yet, after we have been snatched away, there will no longer exist on earth any out-called-company 'which is Christ's body.' Christ's ekklEsia will also be "the ekklEsia of God" (how could it be otherwise?), it will include all existing out-called-companies in Judea and everywhere else, including the seven 'which are in Asia' when the time comes for them to appear. Why complicate all this? Surely it is not only simple as it stands but wholly Scriptural.
This is no new idea of mine, it was set out plainly in a paper, "Confusion About the Church" on p. 10 of Vol. 28, No. 1, just quoted. This was published in 1966, but due to difficulties caused by change of editorship this was wrongly called Vol. 27.
When did the present "lo-ammi" period start? Surely, with the events which brought about the pronouncement of lsa. 6:9, 10 in Matt. 13:14, 15.
The saving-work of God was sent to the Gentiles. The Secret of Eph. 3:6-12 is that "In spirit the Gentiles are to be . . joint-body-people . . ." As a Covenant People Israel had ceased to exist—not because Israel themselves had ceased to exist, but because their covenant standing had. So they had come to be on exactly the same footing as Gentiles, except that they remained Israel according to flesh. As, however their special covenant standing had ceased to exist, there remained nothing of any special standing according to flesh, so there was in practise no difference left between them and Gentiles. Spiritually they were on precisely the same footing. Consequently, if the individual of Israel was to have any blessings at all, they would have to be on exactly the same terms as those of the individual Gentile. All who come to believe while Israel is "lo-ammi" belong to the same "class." They were and are Gentile, even if Jewish according to flesh. This is true of all who have believed since the pronouncement of Matt. 13:14, 15, even though the fact became apparent only gradually. Naturally, however, the change at that point of time did not affect those who had already believed, like the Twelve and no doubt others. They retained their standing as of the Covenant People, unaffected in that respect by what happened.
When the moment of fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 occurs, all believers will be snatched away, irrespective of what "class" they suppose themselves to be members. For a moment that will leave a sort of vacuum, instantly to be filled by some who will abruptly come to perceive what they have missed, and who will in consequence begin to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. No doubt we shall have left behind us some of the illumination which has been granted to us, some of the insight we have achieved through long and patient study and prayer. This will help these new believers. They will search the Scriptures, and perhaps prophets will be raised up to teach and to proclaim the Evangel of the circumcision.
However, we can at present only speculate about this. What we can declare with certainty is that God's out-called company, "the Church," will once more be Jewish and possibly temporarily centred round Jerusalem as it was during most of the period covered by Acts. How long this will last we can only guess—perhaps for the duration of the Ingathering. Then persecution by the "orthodox" Jews, who will base themselves firmly on Old Testament ground, will start, and a new Dispersion will appear, that of James 1:1, 1. Peter 1:1.
Looking again carefully at the Epistles of James and Peter, one thing stands out: they make no mention of Israel, Judah, Judea or the Jew. James sounds the key note in his Introduction: "James, slave of God and of Lord Jesus Christ to the twelve tribes—the ones in the dispersion." Peter addresses himself "to elect expatriates of dispersion." But how can there be such people, as there are at present, after the Ingathering has taken place? Surely, the rather remarkable choice of language is highly significant, indicating as it does that there is something special about these dispersed ones? They will be people thrown out, and many of them killed, as were James' followers who were zealous of the Law (Acts 21:20), some of whom were killed up to and until shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem. They will be ones scattered about outside the Land, sojourners and expatriates, whom Peter urges to have their behaviour among the Gentiles ideal (1. Peter 2:12).
Yet the essential thing about them is that they will be Christians (1. Peter 4:16). While Israel are gathered into their own Land, once more "ammi," once more Covenant People and acknowledged as such, still they will yet have to see and receive their Messiah, the Christ. But though they will not be aware of the fact, His coming to them will be a very different one to the past coming.
"Amen! Lo! He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will be viewing Him—those also who pierce Him—and all the tribes of the Land will be grieving over Him. Yea! Amen!" (Rev. 1:7).
That coming will be a very terrible experience, at the very climax of Israel's greatest apostasy which, we must ever keep in mind, will be an apostasy, not from the Christ Whom they have never known, but from Moses and the Law.
But these "twelve tribes, those in the dispersion" these "chosen expatriates of dispersion"—they will be all that because they have been chosen to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, accepting and believing the Evangel of the circumcision and willingly, even gladly, paying the price for their faith, as the Apostle Peter makes so plain in his first Epistle.
Nevertheless, with them will be many who will be unable to stay the course which, as Peter also points out, will be no easy one. For them the path will be one of suffering, and many out-called-companies among them will collectively fail to endure to the end, to them John addresses his epistles to the seven churches, to those in Asia province, each with its note of warning and encouragement.
Even so, all this leaves wide open another problem. We have answered the question "How can there be such people after the Ingathering has taken pace?", yet another remains unanswered: "How can there have been such people at any time in the past?" As far as I can see, there simply was no room for them—any of them—apart from scattered groups; and certainly nothing to justify such special consideration as these epistles imply. I wrote concerning this matter in the first four paragraphs of Part 6 of "The Teaching of the Apostle Peter" (Vol. 29, No. 2—originally designated as Vol. 28, No. 2-pp. 90, 91). In these I assumed, wrongly as I now believe, that these communities really existed at that time. I now think I may have gone astray in making that assumption. I do not believe now that these Scriptures have yet been fulfilled at all.
This sounds very startling, and it is! Yet, so far as I am aware, no enlightened believer ridiculed Dr. Bullinger when he declared, some sixty years ago, that the Revelation or Apocalypse was prophecy (Rev. 1:3) and that the seven churches named in it never have existed, at any rate in the form there shown. The first of these, at Ephesus, has no point of contact with the church Paul knew at Ephesus. That fact has indeed been used as an argument against the authenticity of the book of Revelation. Bullinger boldly contended that these seven churches are to be assemblies of Jewish believers on earth in the coming Day of the Lord, and not in past days at all. He was right! They belong to the Lordly Day.
Why, then, should we think it strange or unreasonable to believe that the Epistles of James, Peter and Jude are similarly intended, and never yet have had any direct relevance to conditions existing on earth? I suggest that they too are prophecy.
If so, why were they written? The answer, during our time, is, "For our learning." I believe that the written Word of God has been completed, so these epistles necessarily had to exist; prematurely, in a sense, for those to whom they are directly intended; though when understood they certainly do much to enlighten us. The circumstance that we have taken so little trouble to learn from and about them is to our shame; but it proves nothing against these epistles. It is we who have missed the holy learning they could have given us. When the time of fulfilment comes, they will take their proper place, and doubtless comprehension of their precious message will be expanded by prophets far beyond our present realization. They will be relevant during the whole of the Seventy Sevens of years, and those epistles to the Seven Churches particularly for the closing part of them. When the day of the Lord is imminent their full import will become evident.
Whether the foregoing will make much impact in these days of general indifference is hard to forecast; but the most likely retort to the argument will, I think, be that it is not acceptable because it implies the existence of two distinct "dispensations" at the same period of time.
Such an objection cannot stand. Years ago I pointed out that an economy, oikonomia, generally rendered "dispensation" is not a period of time. There is no element of time of any sort in this Greek word, which means literally home-law and has to do with administration, not with time periods. A form of administration has a beginning in history and usually an end: it covers a period of time, but is not itself a period of time. So whether two administrations do or do not exist at the same time for different people is a matter of experience, not theory.
The events of Matt. 13 occurred somewhere about A.D. 28, the call of Paul about A.D. 37, his arrival in Rome about A.D. 61 and the destruction of Jerusalem about A.D. 69 or 70. These dates are taken from Dr. Bullinger, so any bias in them will hardly be against his views. Thus we can say that Israel became "lo-ammi" about A.D. 28, some nine years before the call of Paul, and that the destruction of Jerusalem took place somewhere about 43 years after.
On any showing, then, there are overlaps in time here. Sacrifices continued in the Temple for some 42 years after Israel became lo-ammi, 33 after Paul's Evangel began to be proclaimed, and at least 7 after the Prison Epistles were published. If different "economies" could co-exist thus in the past, they can in the future. Let us observe, too, that these times are at best only approximate. If they had had any doctrinal significance at all they would surely have been much more definite. In this connection, actual dates have no special significance. After all, the Temple (hieron) is referred to more frequently in Acts than in any of the Gospels. The ceremonies of the Temple could and did go on until its destruction, notwithstanding the truths declared in the Epistle to Hebrews.
In these matters I make my appeal to what actually is, not to what I or anyone else may think ought to be. Only very gradually have I been able to shake off some of the load of traditional bias bequeathed to us by the prejudices of others and reinforced by the blindness induced by our mortality. Let us, then, put forth a determined effort to view these matters with fresh eyes. That the late Commander Steedman pointed the way to a fresh advance is now plain. That he and we have been correct in everything we have done in examining these fresh ideas is not so certain; but it will be our own fault if we fail to make them conform entirely to Scripture.
R.B.W. Last updated 15.11.2005